by Ana Morlier, The Crazy Plant Lady
New Year? Meet New Zen
Happy January, readers! While January may seem like a rather bleak time for us gardeners, there still come advantages and ways to keep up our green thumbs (houseplants, a gardener’s current best friend). This is also a rare opportunity for peace and relaxation. Think about it, no relatives to please, no gifts to give, and no repetitive songs to listen to. It’s time to focus on the present moment. Time for you. What better way to ground yourself and connect with nature than with a Zen garden?
Cultivating and maintaining Zen gardens can offer a visual meditation or provide a means to do an activity mindfully, even if for a short time in your day. Zen gardens were inspired by the Song dynasty gardens in China. However, the approach was perfected in Japan by Zen Buddhists working to represent the simplicity and calm of nature through practice. The training is still quite popular today across the globe, and today you can take this long-cultivated ritual into your home!
Use any container you wish! Whether utilizing a small bowl, square block, or sandbox, any size will do, just as long as the container can withstand the water if you decide to use live plants.
Fill your container with:
Fine white gravel or sand. If you are using fake plants, use enough to fill your container. With real plants, get enough to top baseline soil about an inch.
Rocks (try for neutral colors. No two rocks should be the same, in size or shape). Rocks should meet the scale of your container and not create a singular focal point, which may distract from the rest of your garden.)
Steel or wooden garden rake (for larger scale projects. You can also use a fork, order a mini rake, or use a paintbrush).
If you don’t feel like freestyling it, no worries! Zen Garden kits are available anywhere, from Amazon to Five and Below.
Mindfully Creating Your Zen Garden
Take a couple of deep breaths to center your mind.
Fill the bowl with sand for fake plants, being sure to have patience with yourself if a few errant sand granules make their escape to the floor.
If you are using real plants, fill containers two-thirds full with dirt and the rest with sand after plants are inserted.
When planting real plants in your garden, dig holes for whatever plants you choose. You can include succulents and air plants for a model with less maintenance, moss, grasses, etc.
Be sure to cover any areas left unoccupied by plants with rocks, gravel, and/or sand.
When adding plants, try to keep it minimalist! You do not want to crowd your Zen garden. Leave plenty of room, so you can draw patterns in the sand.
You Can Create Your Garden in Two Ways
Island model: Groups of stones are clustered together (in “Islands”), with plants in the middle of the grouping. The surrounding gravel or sand then mirrors the fluid, graceful nature of the ocean, especially if you choose to trace trails into the pliable materials.
Perimeter model: Plant/place plants on the perimeter of your garden, then border them with stones to separate plants and water from the sand. In addition, you will have more “sand canvas” to “draw” upon. Another idea is to have some plant outcroppings on the perimeter of your garden, with larger stones bordering these plants to prevent water and all of the sand from coming through.
Setting Your Zen Garden Into Action
Make sure your space is as quiet as you can make it.
After setting your plants and dirt in place, take in the scents of the space. Notice the smell of earth or the fresh scent of plants to center your mind into the present moment.
Place or rearrange stones within your garden. Formations should not be symmetrical, but organic and bare, in order to reflect the raw beauty of nature. Take time to notice the texture, temperature, or other details of the rocks and sand that you touch. Feel free to cluster rocks in groups of three (as is common), but do what feels right to you and your vision for the aesthetic flow of your garden.
Different shaped rocks have various meanings, which can also help you in creating a garden with a mood that suits your own:
Sanson-ishigami: One large rock, representing a deity (or Buddha in some traditions) with two supporting stones.
Vertical rocks: Wood/trees.
Flat, horizontal: Water.
Arching stones: Fire.
Low/Reclining: Earth or metal.
Try out different combinations but remember not to crowd your garden. Larger rocks are especially helpful for mirroring the impressive nature of mountains or replicating other landmarks.
Once satisfied with stone placement, get out a tool (such as a mini-rake, fork, or other means to manipulate sand) and slowly, mindfully, trace patterns into the sand. Generally, you want to recreate a water-like effect, such as how water ripples and spreads after a stone is thrown. It does not have to be circular, as long as lines create flow in harmony with each other, and look fluid and wave-like. Notice the sounds your tools make creating this design, and the weight of your tool. Also, notice your breathing as you move this part of the earth and become one with it.
When completed, take time to appreciate your work and its natural beauty. Notice emotions such as gratitude, connection, and mindfulness. If you don’t notice these, take time to check in with what you may be feeling. Mindfulness might bring more attention to a difficult emotion, rather than tranquility. If you notice frustration, that’s completely normal! Your Zen garden acts to center you (and works in meditation, too) in a busy world of disconnection with our bodies and emotions.
Once this step is complete, rake away any patterns. While it sounds self-defeating, the practice reminds us of natural impermanence and prevents attachment, allowing for flexibility and flow. Put tools away and appreciate yourself for completing the practice.
This is a simplified example of a Zen garden creation and perfect for those beginning the practice. Just the simple acts of becoming mindful of your surroundings, breathing, and actions are enough to help refresh and rejuvenate a person for the rest of their day. This is also helpful for those who have trouble sitting still during meditation, as gardening supplies a means of movement, flow, and mindfulness. May this practice provide you peace and tranquility in the new year. O genki de (take care), readers!
A miniature Zen garden, featuring tan gravel and moss.
Credit to: Credit to Faena Aleph, David Beaulieu of The Spruce, LanguageDrops, Kira from Your Body the Temple, Craft Schmaft, Tilen Space.